Ripple effects from the ongoing battle for the holy city of Najaf, and for the hearts and minds of Iraq's Shiites, spread across the country on Wednesday.
Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric arrived home from Britain and his aides called for a nationwide march to Najaf to end nearly three weeks of fierce fighting between U.S. forces and Shiite militants in this holy city.
In honor of Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani's arrival, militants loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr said they would suspend fighting with coalition and Iraqi forces in every region al-Sistani passes through on his way to Najaf, said al-Sadr aide Aws al-Khafaji.
Heavy fighting persisted in Najaf's Old City, the center of much of the past three weeks of clashes. U.S. warplanes fired on the neighborhood, helicopters flew overhead and heavy gunfire was heard in the streets, witnesses said.
In nearby Kufa, just northeast of Najaf, unidentified gunmen killed two people and wounded five others taking part in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration supporting al-Sadr, said Mohammed Abdul Kadhim, an employee at Kufa's Furat al-Awsat Hospital.
Militants said Wednesday they had kidnapped the brother-in-law of Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan and demanded he end all military operations in Najaf, according to a video, Al-Jazeera television reported.
In other developments:
Witnesses in the Old City said militants were still fighting in the streets, though the relentless American attacks in Najaf appeared to be weakening them.
Police on Wednesday arrested several al-Sadr aides with valuables from the sacred Imam Ali Shrine, which they control, in their possession, al-Jazaari said. One of al-Sadr's top lieutenants, Sheik Ali Smeisim, was among those arrested, police officials said on condition of anonymity.
Al-Sistani, 73, had been in London for medical treatment for a blocked artery since Aug. 6, one day after clashes erupted in Najaf. The cleric wields enormous influence among Shiite Iraqis and his return could play a crucial role in stabilizing the crisis.
He crossed into southern Iraq from Kuwait about midday in a caravan of sport utility vehicles accompanied by Iraqi police and national guardsmen, according to an Associated Press reporter with the convoy. The convoy stopped in the southern city of Basra.
After meeting with al-Sistani, Basra Gov. Hassan al-Rashid told reporters that the cleric would lead a march to Najaf on Thursday. "The masses will gather at the outskirts of Najaf and they will not enter the city until all armed men, except the Iraqi policemen, withdraw from the city," he said.
Al-Sistani is heading to Najaf "to stop the bloodshed," said Al-Sayyid Murtadha Al-Kashmiri, an al-Sistani representative in London. "Those believers who wish to join him, let them join," he said.
Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, an al-Sadr spokesman in Baghdad, followed that call with one of his own for all Muslims to march on Najaf.
"I call on all my Sunni brothers and also our brothers in all of Iraq's provinces to immediately head to Najaf and to protect the shrine," told Al-Arabiya television.
In Shiite areas across Iraq, appeals issued from mosque loudspeakers urging Iraqis to heed al-Sistani's call.
In the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, many left for Najaf in cars and buses in answer to a call from the mosques to "help stop the bloodshed."
Al-Jazaari, the police chief, cautioned Iraqis not to come to Najaf, saying they should await instructions from al-Sistani, "because their enemies could cause them a disaster and they could put their lives in danger."
Earlier, Najaf Gov. Adnan al-Zurufi said Iraqi security forces had "taken all needed measures to prevent any crowds from entering the province," calling it a "military area."
In recent days, U.S. and Iraqi forces in Najaf tightened a cordon around the Old City and the neighboring shrine, the holiest Shia site in Iraq. U.S. forces shelled militants loyal to al-Sadr in the Old City on Wednesday and smoke rose into the sky after U.S. warplanes pummeled the area overnight.
Police in Najaf distributed leaflets telling residents they had to make a choice between rebuilding the country and watching it flourish or continuing with fighting and watching its economy collapse.
The militant force, which once waged fierce battles with U.S. troops throughout the Old City and Najaf's vast cemetery, seemed considerably diminished in number and less aggressive Tuesday after days of U.S. airstrikes and heavy artillery pounding.
Hundreds of insurgents have been spotted leaving Najaf in recent days, witnesses said. Those that remained appeared to have pulled back to the area around the shrine, where the fighting Tuesday was concentrated, U.S. troops said.